SAN DIEGO — The Yankees’ 2020 season comes down to this: Jordan Montgomery, their fifth-best starting pitcher, on the mound in Game 4 of the American League division series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday.
The Yankees found themselves in this position because of an uncharacteristically poor start by Masahiro Tanaka and an unusually tepid offensive output in a 8-4 loss on Wednesday that gave the Rays a two-games-to-one advantage in the best-of-five series. A Yankees win on Thursday would force a decisive Game 5, in which their ace, Gerrit Cole, could pitch on short rest for the first time in his major-league career. But Tampa Bay could close out the series and reach their first A.L. Championship Series berth since 2008.
Some late-game heroics by the Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who homered for a team-record fifth straight postseason game, couldn’t make up for a pitching staff that slipped up one too many times against the Rays. They have been particularly tormented by Randy Arozarena, the Rays’ emergent playoff star who is 12 for 20 this postseason, including 8 for 12 in this series against the Yankees.
“I’ve don’t think I’ve ever seen it before, where a guy punishes every single mistake,” Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “We can’t get away with anything against him right now. It’s been pretty frustrating.”
Tanaka felt the same emotion. Entering this postseason, he was among the most reliable playoff pitchers in baseball. He had a 1.76 earned run average in eight starts, five of which were Yankee wins. He stumbled amid poor weather and delays in a start against Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs last week, though the Yankees managed to overcome his worst career postseason start for a hard-fought win.
The conditions were not an issue at Petco Park, but Tanaka’s command was — particularly with his breaking balls. Of the career-high eight postseason hits Tanaka allowed, six were on either sliders or curveballs. The biggest: a three-run blast by Kevin Kiermaier on a curveball in the fourth inning, which gave the Rays a 4-1 lead. Arozarena added a solo blast an inning later on a slider, and that was the end of Tanaka’s outing.
“It comes down to not executing when I really needed to,” Tanaka said through an interpreter.
Said Higashioka of the Rays: “A couple times, they were one step ahead of us. We need to be a little more unpredictable next time.”
The Yankees were unhappy with a tight call just before Kiermaier’s home run. Tanaka threw a 3-2 slider to Willy Adames, the hitter before Kiermaier, that was ruled a ball by the home plate umpire Mark Carlson. The Yankees, though, thought they had gotten a strikeout and caught Joey Wendle stealing at second base. Instead, the pitch was called ball four, Wendle stayed on base, and the next pitch was clobbered into the stands by Kiermaier.
“The pitch was borderline,” Higashioka said. “It was a tough call. It just didn’t end up going our way.”
In the sixth inning, Yankees reliever Chad Green let the game get further out of reach when he coughed up a two-run blast to the Rays’ light-hitting catcher Michael Perez, who had only two career major-league home runs before Wednesday.
The Yankees’ offense, even with the struggling starting catcher Gary Sanchez benched for Higashioka, produced little. Regardless of any inconsistencies with Carlson’s strike zone, the Yankees had their chances: They loaded the bases with one out in the third inning and produced just one run, on a sacrifice fly by Aaron Judge. Stanton smashed a two-run home run in the eighth to trim the Yankees’ deficit, but they could not make up any more ground.
The Yankees’ output on Wednesday paled in comparison to their production all postseason: In their previous four games, they scored 36 runs. Over the past two games, the Rays have held key Yankees hitters D.J. LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, Gleyber Torres, Judge and Voit to 4 for 38, all singles.
“We know what we need to do,” Stanton said, adding later, “It’s now or never, so let’s go.”
The Yankees’ fate now lies with the left arm of Montgomery, at least to start. During the regular season, Montgomery had a 5.11 E.R.A., the highest mark among the Yankees’ regular starting pitchers.
Still, Rays Manager Kevin Cash said after Wednesday’s game that he was “not fully convinced” the Yankees wouldn’t use Cole in Game 4. Regardless of what more pitching strategies are in store for the Yankees, their season is on the brink.